by Andrew Keh and Tariq Panja
When the world’s top anti-doping authority announced this week that Russia would be banned from global sports for four years for continuing violations of its rules, it trumpeted the sanctions as suitably severe.
That opinion was not universal.
To some athletes and anti-doping officials, the punishments put forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency appeared overly accommodating and, in certain cases, altogether maddening. So now, after years of being at least mildly polite in their critiques of the organization that held Russia’s athletic future in its hands, a few of them are no longer holding back.
“With the level of mockery that has taken place, not only of the rules, but those who abide by and safeguard them, it’s hard to understand how this could not have warranted the most serious level of sanctioning, ” said Beckie Scott, a Canadian Olympian and the chairwoman of WADA’s athlete committee. “Especially when they have the power to do so.”
Scott and others in the world of international sports said they were frustrated with WADA because they had pressed for a blanket ban of all Russian athletes at next year’s Olympics and at other major competitions. They said that such a punishment would have been fitting because multiple investigations had documented how Russia corrupted international sporting events for years.
That cheating culminated with a scheme to substitute dirty urine samples with clean ones at the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. When that operation was revealed, anti-doping officials said, Russia manipulated computer databases it had promised to turn over as a condition of lifting sanctions against the country’s anti-doping agency.
Instead, Monday’s ruling most likely means competitors from Russia will continue to participate in the Olympics impeded only by the inability to wear their country’s uniforms or see their country’s flag raised if they win.
But the limited reach of the ban left some critics scratching their heads. Russia did not, for example, lose the right to participate next summer in the quadrennial European soccer championships, one of the biggest sporting events in the world, nor the right for St. Petersburg to host games in the tournament. The championship is a continental championship instead of a world championship, rival nations, athletes, and fans were informed, and thus Russia’s global anti-doping punishments did not apply.
Han Xiao, the chairman of the athletes’ advisory council of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, said many athletes from the United States initially had opposed a blanket ban on Russian athletes and teams because they felt sympathy for their counterparts who may be clean. But Xiao said it was the repetitive pattern of cheating and punishment dating back half a decade — with no apparent remorse — that made him believe a harsher punishment was necessary.
“We need some baseline comfort that we’re competing on a level playing field,” said Xiao, a former member of the U.S. table tennis team. “But with Russia, after all these years, we’re still talking about the same thing, which shows that the behavior doesn’t change. So at what point are you going to raise the sanctions so they do really hit them?”
Those seeking harsher action could perhaps look at the way the World Athletics, the governing body for track and field, has handled Russia since a 2015 report first confirmed the true scope of Russia’s state-run doping program.
World Athletics, then known as the IAAF, immediately banned Russian athletes from all competitions. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro — where the International Olympic Committee had asked each sporting federation to make its own decision about Russia’s participation — only a single athlete from the country competed in track and field, while close to 70 others were suspended. Russia was well represented in other sports, though, and won 19 gold medals.
But track and field officials also stripped Russia of the right to host the 2016 world race walking championships and 2016 world junior championships. The ban on Russia has continued for four years, with only a handful of Russian athletes allowed to compete at the track and field world championships in 2017 and 2019. Each time, the athletes cleared to take part had to do so in neutral uniforms.
“Doping is already hard enough to prove with athletes who aren’t coming from countries with systemic doping programs,” Xiao said.
The World Anti-Doping Agency does have supporters, too. Dick Pound, the Canadian lawyer who served as the first chairman of the agency from 1999 to 2007, said the agency should be given more credit for its work battling performance-enhancing drug use.
“There’s a budding industry of attacking WADA for not being perfect, usually by people who are themselves imperfect and who have no accountability for anyone,” Pound said. “I think if you realistically look at the major international progress against doping in sport, it’s really been at the hands of WADA in the last two or three years and really no one else.”
And yet, some Russian sports officials have sounded unbothered about the prospect that the nation’s name, colors, flag and anthem would be absent at the 2020 Olympics, just as they were at the 2018 Winter Games.
“We have done this before at the last Olympics,” Dmitry Svishchev, president of Russia’s curling federation, said this week, according to Reuters. “There is nothing horrible about this.”
The people most frustrated are those who say they have had to watch the same plot unfold time and again, and who fear the new sanctions will do little to alter Russia’s behavior.
“The perception of this being a stiff punishment, it’s just that: a perception,” said Bruce Baumgartner, the president of USA Wrestling. “It’s not the reality.”